The Dangers of Servility


If you haven’t heard, it seems Dick Cheney plans to lower the boom on Pres. Bush in his memoir.  In the first term, Cheney makes it plain, he pulled W’s strings and all was well.  In the second term, W cut some of the strings and, in Cheney’s view, America disappeared under a mushroom cloud didn’t do as well.

Discussing Cheney’s influence as VP, Alex Massie says:

Freed from any kind of electoral or political reality, Cheney was able to rampage through Washington, doing all kinds of damage to almost every institution or office or agency he touched. That’s the price you pay for Cheney’s lack of personal political ambition. We often think of political ambition as something to be wary of – and rightly so – but Cheney demonstrates that the quiet lack of personal ambition can have disastrous consequences too, for it frees a man from having to be accountable for his actions, permitting him to justify anything and everything if it moves him an inch closer to achieving goals that he, and he alone, has set.

It’s worth pointing out that this is inherent in the design of our system.

The Framers — Madison in particular — worked from a philosophical view that said man (the right term for the period) is inherently power-hungry, and the closer he gets to power, the hungrier he gets.  They therefore designed a system of government wherein each piece’s pursuit of power checked the power of the others; checks and balances, and all that.

It’s insufficient to say our system was designed so it would function under those [seemingly worst-case] conditions.  The fact is, our system will work properly only under those conditions.  If some of the pieces lack that kind of ambition, the whole thing gets out of balance.

It’s like a V-8 engine with one piston not firing.  The thing as a whole is designed to balance itself based on the equal opposing forces of 4 pistons per side.  When one of them isn’t firing, it kicks to one side.

This is the problem we had during the Bush administration.  Not just with Cheney, but with the congress.  The GOP majority wanted nothing more than it wanted to do whatever Bush wanted.  They didn’t have the ambition Madison assumed, and therefore provided no equal opposing force to the White House.  Things got out of balance and oversight didn’t happen.

It’s bad enough when you have a VP who a) has wild notions about the powers of the vice presidency, and b) has no political ambitions beyond that office.

Add in a total lack of oversight because the congress’s greatest ambition is to be in total agreement with the president, and you have a situation our system just wasn’t designed to handle.



6 Responses to “The Dangers of Servility”

  1. Terry A. Says:

    These latest Cheney stories paint a picture of a man unhinged. He favored “regime change” in North Korea and Iran? Does that mean the US-sponsored kind (like Iraq and Afghanistan)? It’s unclear, but given Cheney’s disregard for national opinion and clear contempt for even the office of POTUS, it’s not ridiculous to assume that’s what he had in mind.

    One breath from the presidency. And to think people rested uneasily during the Cold War. Never thought I’d ask this of the Dubya/Cheney terms, but: It could’ve been a lot worse, couldn’t it?

    • urbino Says:


      I’ve heard reports here and there that people who’ve known Cheney a long time say his personality changed so dramatically after 9/11 that they didn’t even recognize him. Some theorize he had a minor stroke.

      Not being one of those people, I have no idea if any of that is true. I can say, however, that he advocated/did nothing as VP that was inconsistent with his public record. He was a hawk and an executive authoritarian all the way back to Nixon.

  2. dejon05 Says:

    Terry… your question brought to mind a cringe-inducing metaphor. I remember having the same feeling in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy.

    Klebold and Harris had grandiose plans for much greater destruction than they accomplished. Yet while both parties had larger goals than what they accomplished, I am wonder… how could people conceive of such ambitious plans and be so blind to the horrible consequences of success?

    Alas, I suspect that by asking these questions I’m showing my naivete.

  3. dejon05 Says:

    Gah! Commenting before coffee never goes well.

  4. jazzbumpa Says:

    The fact is, our system will work properly only under those conditions.

    Picking at nits here, perhaps, since I sort-of agree with the general thrust of the post – but, the Cheney V.P. experience was unique, and . . . well . . . special. Not only did he have no political ambitions, he was (and remains) as Terry suggests, unhinged. My impression is that he is totally sincere in ever bat-shit crazy thing he has ever said. He is deeply delusional.

    The total lack of oversight that the Republican Congress displayed is a pretty natural result of 1) One party in a two party system having control over two branches, so that checks and balances can be disabled, 2) a group of politicians who place party loyalty over any other consideration, and 3) batshit insanity.

    I think I have to give Madison a pass on this one.

  5. urbino Says:

    I wasn’t blaming Mr. Madison. I was just pointing out that we shouldn’t be surprised by the damage done by politicians who lack personal ambition: our system wasn’t built to handle them.

    99% of the time, Madison’s assumption is spot on. That other 1%, though, is very, very dangerous.

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